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'The Illusionist'

Adapted from Steven Millhauser's short story of the same name, "The Illusionist" stars Edward Norton as a magician with supernatural powers, Jessica Biel as a democratically minded duchess, Paul Giamatti as an officious police inspector and Rufus Sewell as the crown prince of something resembling the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Sewell and Giamatti ham it up as the imperious pretender to the throne and his ambitious but conflicted minion in this uncheesy but entertainingly tricky mystery. There's more heat between the two of them than between the sappy lovers — even their mustaches seem to bristle with loving antagonism.

The beautiful Sophie von Teschen (Biel) and the prince are about to embark on a marriage of (his) convenience when the moody Eisenheim (Norton) blows back into town, setting up shop in an elegant theater where he makes objects disappear and orange trees grow at 1,000 times their natural rate in front of adoring crowds.

The crown prince is intrigued, then embarrassed, when he fails to unlock the mystery behind Eisenheim's illusions in front of his assembled guests. So he charges Chief Inspector Uhl with the task of digging up something on the shifty upstart with the haughty American attitude toward the monarchy. As it happens, Eisenheim loved Sophie madly as the young, mulleted, fog-enshrouded prole he once was. And she didn't care about the mullet or his laborer father, she loved him too. Naturally, this situation can only end in tears, and Uhl soon finds himself investigating a crime in which none of the empirical evidence is as it seems.

Writer-director Neil Burger doesn't quite display Eisenheim's sleight-of-hand; the effects are silly, and the heavy-handed and anachronistic adaptation seems as if it's brought along the signposts to allegory but then left the point at home. But Giamatti and Sewell tuck into the ham and cheese with such relish you almost expect them to take a bite out of each other, and that is fun to watch.

'The Illusionist'

MPAA rating: PG-13

Times guidelines: Some mild sexuality and violence

Yari Film Group Releasing presents. Writer-director Neil Burger. Producers Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Bob Yari. Director of photography Dick Pope. Editor Naomi Geraghty. Music by Philip Glass. In accented English.

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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